Hong Kong gears up for new protests over extradition bill

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Hong Kong braced for mass strikes on Wednesday – its second since Sunday’s “million march” – as the city’s Legislative Council prepares to debate a controversial extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Riot police stand guard with their shields outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong [Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Security has been tightened in and around the legislature building, with riot police deployed in some areas, as thousands of people are expected to join the protesters on Wednesday as businesses across the semi-autonomous Chinese territory prepared to go on strike.

The bill, which has generated unusually broad opposition at home and abroad, is due for a second round of debate on Wednesday in Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council. The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

A final vote is expected on June 20.

“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong’,” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of Civil Human Rights Front, the main organiser of Sunday’s demonstration.

“We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, (it) will become nothing.”

Soothe public concerns

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would press ahead with the legislation despite deep concerns across large swathes of the Asian financial hub that on Sunday triggered its biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Lam has sought to soothe public concerns and said her administration was creating additional amendments to the bill, including safeguarding human rights.

Sunday’s protest, which organisers said saw more than a million people take to the streets, in addition to a snowballing backlash against the extradition bill could raise questions about Lam’s ability to govern effectively.

I want to do something before our freedoms are taken away

Yu Wing-sum, a protester

Protesters remained defiant in Wednesday’s early hours, rallying peacefully just a stone’s throw from the heart of the financial centre where glittering skyscrapers house the offices of some of the world’s biggest companies, including HSBC.

“I want to do something before our freedoms are taken away,” Yu Wing-sum, 23, told AFP news agency.

Protesters stood under umbrellas in heavy rain, some singing “Hallelujah”, as police conducted random ID checks.

Plainclothes officers, in jeans and sneakers and carrying batons and shields, were also deployed, with other reinforcements gathering behind barricades. Sunday’s peaceful march had ended up in violence with  officers fighting running battles with small groups of hardline protesters.

The Civil Human Rights Front condemned the searches, saying authorities had made people afraid to participate in peaceful gatherings.

#612strike

Strikes and transport go-slows were also announced for Wednesday as businesses, students, bus drivers, social workers, teachers and other groups all vowed to protest in a last-ditch effort to block the bill.

Business owners have taken to social media using a hashtag that translates as “#612strike” – the date of the proposed action – to announce solidarity closures.

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly”, and urged all Christians to pray for the former British colony.

Embattled leader Lam, who warned against “radical action” at the latest protest, is herself a Catholic.

“I urge schools, parents, groups, corporations and unions to carefully consider, if they call for these radical acts, what good would it do for Hong Kong society and our youth?” local broadcaster RTHK quoted her as asking.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 22 years ago under a “one-country, two-systems” formula, with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with local elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.

China’s ‘capricious judicial system’

Beijing rejects those accusations and official Chinese media this week said “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the extradition bill.

Sunday’s protest rally plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

The failure of the 2014 protests to wrestle concessions on democracy from Beijing, coupled with prosecutions of at least 100 protesters, mostly youths, discouraged many young people from going back out on the streets – until Sunday.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo encouraged businesses to go on strike “for a day…or probably for one whole week.”

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

Western governments have also voiced alarm, with the US this week warning the bill would put people at risk of “China’s capricious judicial system”.

China denies accusations that it tramples on human rights.

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